Microsoft releases final version of Windows 8.1 to PC makers

Put a fork in it, because Windows 8.1 is done.

On Tuesday, Microsoft announced that Windows 8.1 has reached its final "Release to manufacturing" stage and has, well, been released to manufacturers for inclusion in the annual blitz of holiday hardware. News of Windows 8.1's RTM status first broke this weekend.

What does this mean for you? Nothing, yet. While manufacturers have their paws on the final version of Windows 8.1 today, the free update won't appear in the Windows Store until October 17, with boxed discs and third-party hardware appearing on physical store shelves the day after.

Curious computer users do have a way to scratch their Windows 8.1 itch, however. A preview version of Windows 8.1 is still available for download (here's our guide to installing it), complete with new appsnew features, numerous new highlights, and yes, even a plethora of new (and killer) hidden secrets. One of those hidden features comes in especially handy for traditional PC lovers: The ability to boot directly to the desktop.

Think hard before you install the Windows 8.1 preview, though. If you opt for the preview available in the Windows Store, your apps—though not your personal data—will be wiped when you install the final build in October. Since that's just a couple of months away, you'd probably be better off grabbing the ISO files of Windows 8.1 that Microsoft has made available and running it in a virtual machine, instead.

Read this primer for a tutorial on how to get Windows running in a VM. (Yes, the link leads to an article about installing the Windows 8 preview in VirtualBox, but the core procedure remains the same for Windows 8.1.)

Microsoft deserves big props for delivering an RTM version of the Windows 8.1 update just 10 scant months after the official release of Windows 8.1, especially when you consider just how expansive the update is. Windows 8 was and is far from perfect—and its mixed reception might have even cost Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer his job—but the company's shift towards rapid-fire releases is already paying off.

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